On November 22, 2014, the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum unveiled the dual portrait “Riders on the Winds of Time,” by the artist William J. Castello, to a packed house of over one hundred a fifty guest, possible more folks than the Rosebank, Staten Island cottage had ever hosted before all at once. I have had the pleasure of knowing Bill as a friend for many years and now as a colleague at the GMM. The following is an interview in which Bill shares with us a bit of history, present and future goals. Please enjoy.
What is your attachment to the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum? What prompted you to start the painting of these two legendary men? Where did you find motivation for this project?
In all honesty, I had never set foot in the museum prior to May 27th, 2014. It was through a Facebook reconnection with you (Marianna Randazzo) after many years of our lives taking different paths, that Maria and I were invited to the museum to your book-signing. Prior to that, I had passed the museum and wondered what was inside but never stopped to find out. At that wonderful event I was introduced to Carol Berardi. We spoke and she became aware that I was a working artist. I was inspired by the spirit of the museum and offered to produce a portrait that would show the two men in one portrait. To date, I haven’t seen any other artwork or photo depicting the two men together. The story of the museum is based upon their friendship. From that day I set out to produce just such a piece. Through my renewed friendship with Marianna and the hospitality of Carol and other that day, I also decided to lend my efforts to help the museum and its staff.
Bill, I know you are a Brooklyn guy living in Staten Island for many years, Tell us a bit about Brooklyn. I grew up in East Flatbush, which was a very diverse and sometimes very tough neighborhood. My mother’s family had been there since the 1880’s and so it was very much “home.” I grew up there in the troubled times of transition from a beautiful middle-class neighborhood to a crime-ridden and dangerous place. My family held on to their home until the threat of violent crime and the emigration of all of their neighbors left them in an extremely vulnerable and lonely situation. At that point they packed up anyone in my family that was left in Brooklyn and moved with them to Staten Island. After I married in 1980, I lived on in Brooklyn for six years in Bensonhurst and eventually followed them to the island.
As an artist/photographer for over 30 years, your work predates the Internet era. When you started out, stories and messages were passed through word of mouth instead of being documented online. How does the timeline of your experiences bridge this transformation?
I was, and am an artist, that was thrown into the world of journalism. When I graduated from St. John’s University I came into the working world with a Bachelors of Fine Arts (BFA). My father reminded me that the words “starving” and “artist” are stated together in too many circumstances so I set out to prosper from my training and talents. I served a six-month internship at the MacNeil/Leher Report on PBS and, from that job, moved to the Associated Press in 1979, on the day following graduation. For the next 34 years I served as a graphic journalist/writer in their New York headquarters on the editorial staff. That job taught me to marry pictures and word and served as a window through which I was able to study the world on a daily basis. The experience there was like a 34-year university education on everything that happens in the world. Upon retirement in 2011, I took a position as an adjunct professor of journalism at my alma mater, St. John’s, a job that I do more for love rather than money. Helping the young people of that school make the transition from students to professionals is the best job I have ever had. I succeed through their success…and they have found success. The world of journalism is never an easy one, but through it, I have enriched my life, my mind, my skills in a way that no other profession would have achieved. Now I help other to transition into that world.
Tell us about some of the things that you have done for a living.
My entire professional career has been in journalism but I have remained a working artist. My graphics and articles have been published worldwide, several times a day, for 34 years, but my artwork is much more personal. Most of the art produced over the course of my life has been given to the people in my life. Being primarily a portrait artist, I have produced the images of the loved ones, of friends and family and given those images to them as gifts. When I was working my way through college, my jobs included everything from waiter at a catering hall, delivery boy on Wall Street, cleaning and maintaining places of business, working for printers, freelance artist etc. I have and continue to get my hands dirty when necessary.
You have a unique process of creating art. For you it is clearly not only about paint and canvas. Would you like to share a bit about the process? Was part of the impetus for this process to record and share this history?
As an artist, I try to capture a feeling or concept rather than just an image. My love of history has made it a lifelong learning experience. When combined, my art reflects the reverence and respect that I have for what has gone before. In the case of my latest painting, I hope to portray these historical figures as real men, as friends and as living history. I want the observer to “meet” and thereby understand these men on a personal level.
We know you are a guy of the world who else, or what other associations are you affiliated with?
I love my community, so I have joined several local organizations. I am a 4th Degree, Past Grand Knight and trustee in the Knights of Columbus, a member of the Travis Community Association, an associate member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and a member of the Order Sons of Italy. I had been an Elk and worked with virtually every other community group on the island. A group of my dearest friends belong to all of the other organizations and together we help to shape the social calendar for the Staten Island charities. Our collective aim is to improve the lives of our neighbors. In doing so, we make life on this island a bit better for all of us.
What can we expect at the presentation of “Riders of the Wind of Time?” What do you hope to leave behind?
I am hoping to use the opening as a grand introduction of all of my friends, family and associates to our museum and each other. The painting makes a great excuse. I will also present a slide show on the process that the painting went through from blank canvas to finish on a continuous loop of slides. I hope to produce a renewed understanding and love of our museum and an atmosphere of friendship and community through this gathering of the people who are in my life.
Bill, I have noticed quite a few themes in your work, such as religion, children’s art and political activism. What are, for you, the connotations of these symbols? What is the role of history and collective memory in your work?
All of these themes are results of my career and personal values. As an artist, I can physically produce a legacy with each project. Having never been blessed with children, these pieces of art ARE my legacy. They will live on to tell the world who I was and what I held dear. Religion, history, people…they are all my favorite topics. If my art tells that story, I will rest in peace.
Favorite artistic technique or medium? Favorite type of music?
My favorite mediums are pencil on paper and painting with acrylics. I have worked in everything from computer graphics to bronze sculpture. My taste in music is as diverse as my mediums. I love everything from Bach to Zappa and back.
Tell us about your sweetheart, Maria. How can people follow or contact you.
I have been together with my love Maria since 1974. We married in 1980 and she has put up with me for quite a long time. We met when doing high school plays at Bishop Kearney High School in Brooklyn, and life has been our stage ever since. She pursues her culinary education as I continue to do whatever I do in harmony, in our little house in Travis with our two Boston Terriers, Mr. Boston and little Daisy. People can follow me on Facebook at William J. Castello, email me at [email protected] or come up an visit me at the museum…
Thank you Bill, as always, it has been enlightening.